The last year has been a total whirlwind. I’ve gotten to travel to places I previously hadn’t even contemplated as options. I have had countless moments where the mere act of sitting, being still in my surroundings, has felt like living within the eye of the most powerful prayer conceivable. Moments where my connection to the universe was as tangible as human touch. The beauty of the world, the friendships that have sprung up from the most random of encounters, holding hands and crying intimate tears with someone as we bear our souls to each other. These are the moments that I treasure, that I have come to crave, that drive me with relentless passion.
So many of these moments are due to my work. I love my job. There’s no other way to put it. I had breakfast yesterday with my Kenyan colleague Dorothy, a health delegate who spent nine months in Liberia during the Ebola outbreak. She told me that upon her return home, her friends crossed the street when they saw her, just to avoid contact. Why do you do it, I asked? It’s one of my favorite questions. I am genuinely curious. And I am never disappointed with the answer.
When Dorothy was 13, her younger sister, with whom she was and is incredibly close, was severely burned in an accident. The nurses wouldn’t even touch her; her father ended up paying extra money just to have her dressings changed. Then they met “the good nurse.” All these years later her voice quivers as she describes how this one person changed the course of her sister’s survival. Immediately, her sister, previously ignored, was treated tenderly and with care.
Because of the good nurse, I decided that when I got the opportunity, I wanted to touch people too. Because the good nurse touched my sister, she survived and went home. And now, for me, humanitarian work is a calling. It’s a passion. Nobody wants to go out and do these things. But I can do it. There are people who are suffering and I want to alleviate their suffering, even if it is something small.
I’ve had this conversation a million times. This work is a calling. It is part of my identity. Each time I leave for yet another adventure, I am renewed and revived in a way that only finding your soul’s work can do.
And yet, I am torn. There are things I miss, things that inevitably come with being away for such long periods.
I miss home. Deeply and desperately. I miss the little things of course, my favorite body-pump class and happy hour with girlfriends. I’d like to go on a date without suggesting it be two months from now. But I miss the big things too.
My goddaughter got married recently, and I, being thousands of miles away, missed it. Missed the chance to celebrate with family I haven’t seen in far too long. An incredibly close family friend passed just last week. My dad gave the eulogy at his service and at my begging, sent me a recording of him reading it. I listened to it on a bumpy three-hour African road trip, dark sunglasses to hide my grief from coworkers. They were beautiful words about a beautiful man and I wasn’t there to hear them. Without access to the internet for the better part of two weeks, I couldn’t even send flowers. I silently offered my tears to the sky, hoping that my love and support could be felt by his family a half a world away.
So there are costs. But as per usual, life is there whenever I start to feel sorry for myself, reminding me that I’m one of the lucky ones. Because I have a home, even if it’s somewhere I am not as nearly as much as I’d like.
As I type this, I’m in Tanzania covering the massive influx of Burundians fleeing violence in their home country. Many have seen their families butchered in front of them. I’ve heard horrific incidents of people being forced to kill their families themselves. Burundians are not new to refugee life. Many people in the camps have been here two or even three times before. Returning to Burundi when things look more stable, always having to flee once again.
Truth is, I haven’t spoken to anyone that wants to go home at this point. Life in a refugee camp—living in tents, queuing for food every two weeks, trapped in a wall-less prison, nothing keeping them but no way to leave—is nothing I can ever imagine desiring. But for many, it is much better than the alternative.
One woman told me she is happy with her life in the refugee camp. That there’s nothing to complain about. This baffles me, and yet I’ve heard it several times. Resources are extremely limited; much needed medical supplies run out and schools close frequently due to lack of materials. 60% of patients at the health clinic are coming in with malaria. I sure as hell could find something to complain about.
But then home for me is a safe space. A place filled with love and family and plenty of puppy dog kisses. What if in reality, home was the opposite of love? The opposite of safe? What if home was a constant reminder of evil and horrific things? One refugee, a pregnant women working in the maternity ward of the hospital here told me she loves her work because it keeps her from thinking about the past. About the deaths of her first child, the father of the child currently growing in her bulging stomach. The reasons she is in Tanzania at all.
Maybe home is not just a physical place. I mean, do I really miss the 450 square feet I call my own? Or is it the feeling of home that I miss? The peace I feel, snuggled up with my puppy, knowing my best friend in the whole world is right upstairs? That my parents—despite the 9-hour drive from DC—are safe and happy and joyfully spending my inheritance on an awesome retirement life? That my closest friends are just one (reliable) phone call away? And I think about how the Burundians have made that place here, in the confines of a tented city. Maybe home is just a place where peace of mind exists.
Never needing to make that choice—between home the place and home the peace—is a privilege many people will never have. As we end our road trip, pulling into the compound I’ve lived in the past few weeks, our driver shouts out Welcome Home as I jump out the car.
I smile. Because I’ve got peace in my heart, and no matter the distance that currently separates me from my home, I don’t have to choose.